International Women’s Day is celebrated each year on March 8. But there is no specific day to remember women’s fight for equality and dignity, through centuries and all over the world. Over 200 years ago, Nangeli, a poor lower caste woman from Cherthala (Kerala, South) gained her place in history books, after, as the legend goes, she sacrificed herself and cut off her breasts to protest against an iniquitous tax, the “mulakkaram” (“breast tax”) levied at that time by the King of Travancore.
This story is slowly fading away in people’s memory in Kerala but is important to be remembered, as part of women and lower castes oppression in the history of the State and as an eternal symbol of freedom.
Kings of Travancore imposed at that time a burden of taxes, heavy and absurd, to earn fortunes but also to control lower castes and maintain them in a state of poverty and debt. The list was endless, from tax on farming and crops to taxes paid to be allowed to wear jewellery, to grow a moustache for men and for women to cover their breasts, larger the breasts, higher the tax.
Nangeli, from the Ezhava caste, was too poor to pay this “breast tax”. So, when the tax collector (the “parvathiyar”) visited her one day, in 1803, the story goes that Nangeli cut off her breasts in protest and handed them, on a plantain leaf, to the tax collector.
After the “parvathiyar” ran away, Nangeli bled to death and her husband, Chirukandan, who arrived later, found her dead body. The story says he committed suicide at her funerals. He jumped into the cremation fire, committing “sati” (widow suicide), an exceptional gesture for a man.
Nangeli’s sacrifice is said to have led to a turmoil and the “breast tax” was abolished few years later.
The place where Nangeli lived is still known as “mulachiparambu”, the land of woman’s breasts”. There is no memorial there, at Manorama Junction, in the coastal town of Cherthala, but the story lives on. And women’s fight for equality goes on, in other forms and other places, all around the world.